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Avant Muzak

Matthew Shlomowitz

Avant Muzak


Håkon Stene


Excerpt from Popular Contexts 8: Session Drummer

In this new survey, Matthew Shlomowitz continues to explore the composition of ‘a real-world scene with a musical component in it’. He melds samples and field recordings with instrumental ensemble and percussion to uncanny and often irreverent effect.


  • Ellen Ugelvik keyboard
  • Kristine Tjørgersen clarinet
  • Tanja Orning cello
  • Håkon Stene percussion
  • Anders Førisdal guitar

Critical acclaim

atd2 was listed in The Wire’s Top 10 album releases of 2018 (Modern Composition category).

a witty, absurdist masterpiece of contemporary sound art.

Stephanie Eslake Limelight Magazine, 12 November 2018

Avant Muzak, a collection of puckishly referential chamber works by Matthew Shlomowitz, is performed with style and abundant cheek by the superb Norwegian ensemble asamisimasa.

Steve Smith National Sawdust Log, 20 July 2018

…the selection and arrangement of these, mostly pre-existing sounds becomes the primary compositional motor. The series of fragments must spark off each, revealing something that was not clear at first, or building a narrative that plays with listeners’ expectations. It is here that great care is evinced by the pieces: they are organised with no little love.

Neil Thomas Smith TEMPO, 1 July 2019


Popular Contexts 7: Public Domain Music
1 i. International Transport Chimes Reggae 6:06
2 ii. Jazz in the Park 4:30
3 iii. Canteen Funk 4:51
4 iv. Muzak in the Shopping Mall 8:33
Popular Contexts 8: Five soundscapes for a contemporary percussionist
5 i. Drummin’ in the Rain 3:15
6 ii. Comfortably Glock 7:17
7 iii. Session Drummer 3:04
8 iv. Exotic Tourism in Recorded Sound History 3:43
9 v. Royalty Free 4:51
Avant Muzak
10 i. Slow, quite slow, quite fast and fast; with footsteps 2:58
11 ii. Starting and stopping; with girl poem 2:06
12 iii. Loud and soft; with construction 1:06
13 iv. Scanning 2:14
14 v. Cultural location 6:23
TT 60:59

Liner notes

Do you like music? Do you like the music you hear everywhere? Music’s ubiquity today is well recognised. But does what you pass by or what passes you in the street catch your ear and mingle with whatever’s on your mind or playing through your earphones? Those kind of everyday experiences, the jumble of tunes and genres, the collision of soundworlds, rarely infiltrate the concert hall. Shlomowitz lets them in. He explains:

I like the idea of taking material that many might regard as banal and trying to find new possibilities for it. It’s not a subversive act, but simply ennobling a music that is often dismissed. And it also reflects my belief that composition is not so much about creating musical material as what you do with it. 

More than that, Shlomowitz suggests that music carries with it information about how we relate to the world: how we move through it, how we understand it. What’s unusual is that these relationships are not with other media — video, movement, text — but with sound. This is concert music that asks an unsettling question: how should we listen to it?

Popular Contexts 7: Public Domain Music belongs to a series of works combining instrumental music with, as Shlomowitz describes it, ‘identifiable recorded sound’. His purpose was to construct ‘a real-world scene with a musical component in it’. Track titles do what they say, up to a point: there are international transport chimes and reggae grooves in ‘International Transport Chimes Reggae’, birds and an ice cream van in ‘Jazz in the Park’, cafeteria noise in ‘Canteen Funk’, and the soundscape of customer chat and bustle in ‘Muzak in the Shopping Mall’. These are interrupted and overlain, though, with acoustic and electronic musical layers. The intention, according to Shlomowitz, is to encourage a kind of clinical listening, with attention drawn as much to the process as to the sonic content. For example, ‘Jazz in the Park’ is about the process of constructing a scene out of layers that are first heard separately and then increasingly superimposed to create the final effect of a jazz band playing at the park. The effect sounds ‘natural’ but the construction process reveals that, in fact, it is artificial. Another example might be the way a baby’s cries in ‘Muzak in the Shopping Mall’ interrupts the harp’s repetitive passagework and is also part of the mall’s ambient noise; the cry’s rhythms seem to be incorporated into the music but the sampled baby and the ensemble never really synchronise.

Popular Contexts 8: Five soundscapes for a contemporary percussionist continues the same processes, from the mesmerising rhythms of windscreen-wipers (‘Drummin’ in the Rain’) to the repeated gesture of a noise like a scanner (apparently it is a microwave) articulating music for glockenspiel (‘Comfortably Glock’). In ‘Session Drummer’, L’après-midi d’un faune is reimagined as lounge muzak, with the musician-for-hire, laying down their track, becoming ever more intrusive. In ‘Exotic Tourism in Recorded Sound History’ the crackle of the surface noise of the field recordings is as historically evocative as the commentator’s cut-glass accent but becomes the more significant sonic link to the fake ‘exotic’ music for thumb piano (mbira or kalimba). ‘Royalty Free’ runs roughshod through sounds and uncopyrighted musical clips as if a Christian Marclay turntable piece has been taken out of an art gallery and welcomed into a concert hall.

In Avant Muzak Shlomowitz takes a saccharine chord progression, suggestive of the world of muzak, but takes it seriously, analysing it from different musical and environmental perspectives. For Shlomowitz, it is important that the chord progression is transformed but not obliterated by his investigation; a balance has to be achieved so that both thrive side-by-side. Other ‘avant-garde’ composers would delight in transforming material so that its roots are ever more obscured. But this music is not about mystification; instead, it is mystifying in its seeming simplicity. The movement titles of Avant Muzak describe what happens in terms of tempo, dynamics, and what you hear — alongside variations on the chord progression, we encounter a poem by a girl, construction, ambient noise. It is a disarming strategy that can be disconcerting or charming. Either way, it can make you laugh.

Laura Tunbridge